Imdad Ali suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He first started receiving treatment for his mental illness in 2008, although his friends and family testify that the symptoms of his disease manifested long before that. A doctor who examined Ali in 2012 described him as suffering from “bizarre paranoid delusions” and “incongruent, grandiose delusions.” The doctor confirmed that Ali had no insight into his illness. He described him as “insane.” Another doctor recently described him as “unfit to stand trial.”
Despite his mental illness, Ali was convicted and sentenced to death. His execution was set for earlier this week but on September 19, Ali narrowly escaped execution after a last-minute stay order was issued by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The stay order lasts for a week, and a mentally ill man can yet still be executed.
Although Ali is just one of over 8,000 death row prisoners in Pakistan who face a possible execution, Ali’s case has garnered significant attention in the press in Pakistan and abroad. The idea that a person so demonstrably mentally ill could be executed has shocked commentators and members of the public from all walks of life in many different nations, I among them. As a Muslim scholar, I am deeply concerned that such a clear injustice might be permitted to take place in an Islamic Republic like Pakistan, where the law should be, and is guided by the teachings of Islam.
When it comes to the issue of criminal sanctions for individuals suffering from severe mental illness, the Islamic legal tradition is clear: only those who are aware of their actions can be judged and considered responsible for their actions. As we find in so many a?âdîth, and repeated by almost all the ‘ulamâ’ throughout our history (whatever their school of law), the punishment cannot be enforced on young people or mentally ill human beings. This would be against our Islamic references and in complete contradiction with the spirit of the ?udûd implementation. Not only can we not punish those who are incapable of understanding their own actions, but we should even, we are taught, not forget compassion towards those who are unaware of their actions.
How then, we must ask, could Imdad Ali have come so close to execution? Ali was first arrested in 2001. His family first noticed signs of his mental illness three years before that, following his return from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1998. Due to their financial circumstances and Ali’s lack of awareness of his own condition, however, they were unable to obtain a formal diagnosis of his illness. When his case came to trial, his family tried to raise his mental illness as a defence but due to the lack of formal records it was dismissed by the trial court.
Sadly, given the difficulties of identifying and treating mental illness that all our communities face, it is likely that Imdad Ali’s death sentence being imposed despite a longstanding history of mental ill0health is far from unique. What does differentiate his case from others is the public conversation it has so far generated, and the opportunity that has been presented to the institutions of government in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to provide a remedy. If Imdad Ali’s execution is prevented and his death sentence commuted, it will be a first step towards ensuring that others suffering from mental illness are treated with the justice and the compassion our religion teaches and encourages.
I sincerely hope that the Government of Pakistan will choose to take that step.
The writer is a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University and is the President of the European Muslims Network in Brussels